Is Positive psychology an old wine in a new bottle?

The following article will critically review what theoretical knowledge has been added to the science of Positive Psychology. The writers approach is to clearly define the point of when this field of study was recognized as a specialty in its own right and review the theories that have been claimed to be the framework of this field and analyze their origin and authenticity. This will clarify if in fact Positive Psychology is simply an old wine in a new bottle.

Many authors agree (Kristjansson 2012: Lopez, Pedrotti & Snyder 2015: Gabel & Haidt, 2005: Csikzentmihalyi & Nakamura, 2011) that the focus on positive psychology as a movement started when Dr Martin Seligman was appointed the President of the American Psychological Association in 1998. Following his appointment his first presidential address was designed to remind his profession that psychology wasn’t just about treating and healing damaged people, but also acknowledging what was needed to build human strengths and resilience, which would also buffer the effects of mental illness and facilitate people without mental illness to flourish (Seligman 1998, cited in Lopez et. al 2015). What happened next was to bring together a team of influential young scholars from around the world to build a strong foundation to develop future research to shift paradigms of thinking to ‘bringing back virtues, strengths and values into mainstream psychology’ (Csikszentmihalyi & Nakamura, 2001 p.6).

Initially the field of clinical psychology was driven by ‘What is wrong with people’ (Lopez, Predrott & Snyder 2015 p.3) and therefore focused on weakness and pathologies. Sigmund Freud a leader in the field at this time suggested that the goal of psychology was ‘to replace neurotic misery with ordinary unhappiness’ (Lopez, Predrott & Snyder 2015 p.3.) This was a period that was focused on understanding and helping people with mental illness.

Although the field of psychology was also trying to re-focus on a mission of helping people live a more fulfilling life and supporting and nurturing the gifted percentage of the population, this focus was then altered by the effects of World War 11 (Lopez, Predrott & Snyder 2015: Seligman & Csikzentmihalyi, 2000). The National Institute of Mental Health was created and there was an urgency to treat mental illness for the returning veterans and an opportunity was born to focus grants in this area of study and psychologists could see the opportunity for employment. (Lopez, Predrott & Snyder: 2015 p.4: Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000). This research has provided many benefits to the field of mental illness and previous disorders were either cured or relieved considerably (Seligman, 1994).

In the last two decades of the movement in Positive Psychology there has been many theories developed and published to support theoretical knowledge and scientific study in this area. A notable theory is The Broaden and Build Theory of Positive Psychology by Barbara Fredrickson (Frederickson, 2001). It is important to note that Barbara Frederickson was one of the chosen young psychologists that were involved with the seminal meetings at Akumal at these formidable discussion (Csikszentimahalyi & Nakamura 2001).

Frederickson’s (2001) theory on positive emotions highlights the effects that positive emotions have on ‘broadening thought-action repertoires’ (p.220) and links this action to building resources that are sustainable in the long term. She highlights the key positive emotions are: Joy which creates when broadened stimulates an urge to be creative, push limits and an opportunity to play: Interest when broadened creates exploration of new information and situations which results in expansion of self: Contentment broadens an urge to savor the present circumstances and see the world differently; Pride urges the motivation to share achievements and finally; Love urges exploration play and savouring with loved ones (Frederickson 2001).

Kristjansson (2012) on his critique of this theory has misgivings regarding what it claims. Kristjansson advises that the thesis is based heavily on self-reports and suggests that the perils of this type of testing are well known. Kristjansson (2012) goes onto talk in detail about the inconsistencies of this thesis but then also claims that it is “undeniably unique to this program’ and that if these inconsistencies were exposed positive education hasn’t gained from this research. Frederickson (2005 Cited in Kristjansson 2012) does acknowledge that her thesis needs to be developed and requires additional testing before it can be acknowledged as a well-supported theory.

In his book ‘Flourish’ Seligman (2011) describes well-being theory having five elements ‘positive emotion, engagement, positive relationships, meaning and achievement’ (pg. 24) they all need to be experienced in some way to maximize well-being. Seligman (2011) goes onto compare this theory to authentic happiness theory and the later falls short of effectively measuring overall well-being. There seems to be pattern here of developing a theory and then changing and modifying, as new research is available and implementation challenges the theory.

In Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi (2000) article of Introduction to Positive Psychology they point to the research already developed in the past three decades that of positive personal traits, subjective well-being, optimism, happiness and self-determination. Also they go onto discuss the contribution of Edward Diener in this time period. Diener (2000) talks of his extensive research, which presents mean levels of life satisfaction in a world wide survey between 1990-1993. He also suggests that to be able to make recommendations for individuals and societies a strong scientific base is required to understand how to increase happiness (Diener 2000). As the movement in Positive Psychology started in 1998 this indicates research was already well underway. Deci and Ryan (2006) suggested that well-being was studied vigorously over the past quarter of century mainly studied by psychologist Diener in 1984 exploring the dynamics of subjective well-being describing the difference between, hedonic and eudemonic preferences.

Another prominent researcher in Positive Psychology is Sonya Lyubomirsky as she talks often of the ‘Hedonic Treadmill’. Diener (2000) suggests that Brickman and Campbell suggested this research in a classic article in 1971. Lyubomirsky’s book (2007) ‘The How of Happiness’ brings together this research and the practical ways of how you can thwart this from controlling your personal set point to happiness. This book is a compellation of research of other leaders in the field and also her own research and it give’s the reader the very valuable insights to change behaviour and sustain long term happiness (Lyubomirsky, 2007).

Lymboyski was also one of the young scholars in psychology asked to go to Akumal in Mexico and it was there that she met Ken Sheldon and David Schkade and together they researched and published what was essential to evaluate the pursuit of happiness. They developed a pie graph to show simply the components of what determined happiness. 40% of this pie graph is in our control and requires ‘intentional action’ and that changing our happiness levels related most importantly to how we think and what we do in our daily lives which was an epiphany for the writer of this assignment to change behavior (Lyubomirsky; 2007).

Kristjansson (2012) has critically assessed the topic of ‘Positive Psychology and Positive Education’ and has systematically reviewed the positive and negative aspects in a way that leaves the reader with a clear understanding of what is lacking in this new field of study from this perspective. Seligman (2011) when describing the implementation of the positive education program in Geelong Grammar School, Victoria talks of the rigorous implementation of this program with his team and how this included teaching, embedding and then living the program from the principle, teachers and students across all grades. Due to the newness of this intervention there is not enough empirical evidence to determine if these strategies can be applied to educational policy at national and international levels (Kristjansson, 2012) and there has been criticism from the traditional educational psychologists that positive psychology and it’s quest for happiness in schools has been ‘psychologized at the expense of philosophical considerations’ (Ecclestone & Hayes, 2009 cited in Kristjansson).

Strengths theory is at the heart of Positive Psychology culture and under pins the idea that recognizing and using strengths leads to greater well-being but is also still to be proven conclusively (Kristjansson:2012). Buckingham (2007) identifies that Peter Drucker wrote a seminal book in 1966 regarding how to build effective strengths in business, and the strengths movement continues with work by Buckingham at that time with the Gallup organisation exploring the results of a study of 198,000 employees interviewed regarding the use of their strengths at work. The Gallop Organisation has continued to develop and support the benefits of using strengths in organisations, schools and individually.

Diener and Chan (2011) reviewed several types of longitudinal studies and presented some compelling evidence that subject well-being affected longevity and also contributed to health at a physiological level. Their claim was that happy people live longer from reviewing large studies from 2000-2010. One of these studies by Chia and Steptoe (2008 cited in Diener & Chan 2011) suggested that influence to inflammation and effects on coagulation factors can affect cardiovascular disease when positive psychological states are present. Parterniti et. al (2001 cited in Diener & Chan 2011) found that high trait anxiety could cause a thickening of carotid arteries and in this study he followed participants for four years. There were many more examples in this article to support their claim.

Not to be forgotten is the development of Hope Theory by Snyder (2002), he talks about the development of this theory dating back to his research with colleagues in 1991 which he has expressed as the ‘……trilogy – goals, pathways and agency-concepts in this definition’ (Snyder 2002, p 250). In the last two decades though this theory has gained attention for it has been useful in many life enhancement activities for example using it as a tool to move towards goals and in a work environment to solve problems. Lopez (et. al 2015) suggests the use of hope self-efficacy and optimism to improve functioning in all areas of your life to promote well-being.

The Positive Psychology movement established in 1998 has been drawing on empirical research before it’s inception and in the theories evaluated so far in this review clearly shows that this is evident. As traditional psychology did alter its original mission for the urgent priority of diagnosing and treating mental illness especially post world war 11. There was no doubt that a few very special psychologists namely Dr Martin Seligman to and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi proved to be an amazing catalyst for many positive psychologist to develop a staggering array of research and knowledge of what makes life worth living and how to achieve greater levels of well-being that can be sustained over time.

Martin Seligman was very proficient at creating funding for scientific research to be developed and it was evident to the writer that he was also adept at picking a young cohort of psychologists to support his ideas. Even though creating this empire has stepped on toes of the traditional psychology he has created an abundance of research in not only how Well-being can affect us psychologically but also in our physiology which affects long term health and longevity. The analogy of positive psychology being an old wine in a new bottle is supported as the research shows much of the framework was established but it has rejuvenated this red wine in an old bottle and added to with some amazing rich grapes with a special flavour to mature and develop to result in a wine that everyone can share and enjoy and be proud of into the future of well-being.

Reference list

Buckingham, M., (2007). ‘Go put your strengths to work: Six Powerful Steps to Achieve Outstanding Performance’, Simon & Schuster, London

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Nakamura, J. ,(2011). Positive Psychology: Where did it come from, where is it going? In Chapter 1, Sheldon, K. M., Kashdan, T.B., & Steger, M. F. (2001).

Designing positive psychology: Taking stock and moving forward. New York, USA: Oxford University Press.

Deci, E.L., Ryan, R.M (2006). ‘Hedonic, Eudemonia and well-being: an introduction’, Journal of Happiness Studies 9:1-11.

DOI 10.1007/s10920-006-9818-1

Deiner, E. (2000). Subjective well-being. The science of happiness and a proposal for a national index. American Psychologist, 55 34-43.

Deiner, Ed Chan, M.Y., (2011), ‘Happy People Live longer: Subjective Well-Being Contributes to Health and Longevity’, Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. 3(1), 1-43


Gable, S.L., Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) Is Positive Psychology? Review of General Psychology Vol. 9, No.2 103-110

Kristjansson, K. (2012). ‘Positive Psychology and Positive Education: Old Wine in New Bottles?’, Educational Psychologist, 47 (2), 86-105.

Lopez, S.J., Pedrotti, J.T., Snyder, C.R..,(2015). ‘Positive Psychology: The Science and Practical Explorations of Human Strength’s. Sage, London.

Lymbomirsky, S. 2007, ‘The How of Happiness: A practical guide of getting what you want ‘, Piatkus, Great Britain.

Seligman, M. (2011), ‘Flourish’. Random House Australia, North Sydney.

Seligman, M. (1994). ‘What you can change & what you can’ New York: Knopf.

Seligman, M. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive Psychology: An Introduction, American Psychologist, Vol.55 No 1 5-14.

Snyder, C.R., (2002). ‘Target article, Hope Theory: Rainbows in the Mind’, Psychological Inquiry, Vol. 13, No. 4, 249-275.

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